As indicated in the previous post in this series, MoMA paintings conservators Cindy Albertson, Anny Aviram, and Michael Duffy have been studying five Magritte paintings for the past two years in preparation for Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary 1926–1938.
Imaging techniques such as ultraviolet (UV) fluorescence, infrared (IR) reflectography, and x-radiography are typically very useful for studying artist’s materials and techniques. Magritte was no exception. A major discovery transpired when MoMA’s The Portrait (1935) was x-rayed and the image revealed an underlying composition.
In the course of treating and examining The Portrait, the first indication that something was different about it was when the work was removed from the frame and the edges examined. Since Magritte did not usually paint the canvas sides the edges of his paintings are typically white. The edges on The Portrait were blue and ochre, meaning that the background wrapped around the edges.
Then, while removing the old varnish from the painting, Cindy noted that The Portrait had an unusual appearance when viewed under UV light. She discerned forms that did not relate to the bottle or plate or glass of The Portrait’s composition.
Puzzled by these elements, we x-rayed The Portrait. The resulting image was more surprising than we could have imagined: when the image was rotated on its side and more closely examined Cindy had a eureka moment—a half-length female figure in profile could clearly be discerned!
Although we knew that Magritte had occasionally painted over or revised compositions, this discovery was very exciting. The painting had been in MoMA’s collection since 1956, but no one had ever suspected that underneath the surface was another composition. Hoping to identify the mystery figure we turned to MoMA’s curatorial team and Brad Epley, Chief Conservator from the Menil Collection. Was this even a work by Magritte below? Why would he paint over what looked like a fully formed composition? When was this original painting done? We suddenly had many questions.
Brad said that the mystery figure reminded him of a late 1920s painting pictured in the Magritte catalogue raisonné—The Enchanted Pose from 1927. This painting—listed as whereabouts unknown—shows two full-length female nudes leaning against columns in a spare setting. While this is a more ambitious composition than the cropped half-length figure that could be seen under The Portrait, the austere classical profile of the mystery figure seemed to closely match the profile of both figures in The Enchanted Pose. We wondered: Could we have uncovered a section of a missing painting?
To test our theory, we overlaid a digital image of the x-ray on top of the upper left corner of a scan of the reproduction of The Enchanted Pose in the catalogue raisonné. We quickly saw that the contours of the figures matched up! Based on this information we concluded that Magritte must have divided up The Enchanted Pose and repainted at least one section to create MoMA’s The Portrait.
A closer examination of The Potrait under the microscope also revealed pinkish highlights in the glass corresponding to the flesh tones of the mystery woman and blue paint from the background sky color visible in the band of the knife.
Why would Magritte have sacrificed The Enchanted Pose? We know that when it was shown at the Galerie L’Epoque in Brussels in 1927 a reviewer praised it. Surrealist writer Paul Nougé remarked upon it in a letter. Despite this it does not appear in any other exhibitions after L’Epoque. A final reference to it is found in a letter of 1932 asking Magritte to collect the painting from the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, indicating that it had not been selected for a group exhibition there.
Perhaps Magritte was disenchanted with the painting because it never found a buyer. Possibly it was eclipsed by the more interesting compositions of the same year such as Entr’acte, The Phantom’s Wife, and The Secret Double. By comparison The Enchanted Pose seems to be more indebted to Picasso’s large female figures, and less original in conception than these paintings. Magritte may have decided that smaller, more recent paintings would be easier to sell than one large one. Perhaps he felt pressure in 1935, when he painted The Portrait, to produce work for an upcoming 1936 solo exhibition and used pieces of The Enchanted Pose for that purpose.
Now we wondered: what happened to the other sections of The Enchanted Pose? We thought perhaps they could be located under other paintings of the same size and date as The Portrait.
It turns out there are many possibilities. One of the most accessible was in the Moderna Museet in Stockholm: The Red Model. Moderna Museet Conservator Lars Byström agreed to examine the edges of the painting to see if there were remnants of the previous composition. He confirmed that there was evidence that there may be a composition underneath. An x-ray image was obtained showing a column with the lower half of a female figure. We determined that we had found the lower left quarter of the missing painting—corresponding to the lower half of the mystery woman located under The Portrait!
We’ve found half of The Enchanted Pose and are continuing the hunt for the other half.